One of the most disconcerting events that can happen to a romance hero or heroine is to overhear someone say something mean about them. Five examples, from books published between 1813 and 2013, demonstrate the potential damage. Are these characters eavesdroppers or are they simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? To clarify, here’s the Wikipedia entry for eavesdropping: “Eavesdropping is the act of secretly listening to the private conversation of others without their consent, as defined by Black's Law Dictionary. This is commonly thought to be unethical and there is an old adage that “eavesdroppers seldom hear anything good of themselves...eavesdroppers always try to listen to matters that concern them.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813. Is this the most famous put-down in literature? After dancing with Jane, the beautiful eldest daughter of the Bennet family, Mr. Bingley asks his friend Mr. Darcy if he would like an introduction to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.
‘Which do you mean?’ and turning around, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, ‘She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.’
Mr Bingley followed his advice. Mr Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings towards him.
As a person with feelings, it’s impossible not to sympathize with Elizabeth. As Jane Austen says, she’s “sitting down just behind” Mr. Darcy—how could he possibly not realize that she could overhear him, especially since he forced eye contact? This interchange colors everything that ensues between Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy because Lizzie was not “secretly listening”—Darcy was being willfully callous.
An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott, 1870. Polly Milton is our old-fashioned girl. She’s a fresh-faced, merry country girl who pays a long visit to the proper and wealthy Boston Shaw family. Polly’s particular friend is the eldest daughter, sophisticated Fanny. Rounding out the cast are mischievous younger brother Tom, quietly observant youngest daughter Maud, a neglected, equally old-fashioned grandmother, and Mr. and Mrs. Shaw. Towards the end of her visit, Polly walks in on the three siblings, who are rifling through her private treasures, reading her journal and looking at her drawings.
“What rubbish!” said Fanny. “Queer girl, isn’t she?” added Tom, who had followed to see what was going on.
Fanny calls Polly a “sly little puss, to make fun of us behind our backs.” Overhearing, in this context, includes the discomfort of knowing your friends have read your private thoughts. When Fanny puts the blame on Maud and says they were just looking at the pictures, the usually even-tempered Polly explodes.
“And reading my journal, and laughing at my presents, and then putting the blame on Maud. It’s the meanest thing I ever saw; and I’ll never forgive you as long as I live!”
Alcott’s readers persuaded her to take up the story of Polly and the Shaw family six years in the future. The slights and criticisms of unsophisticated Polly continue and this time the hurt cuts a little deeper. One night Polly succumbs to the temptation to let loose for an evening at the opera after she overhears Tom talking about her to his sister:
“Lunacy is might becoming, Polly; try it again,” answered Tom, watching her as she went laughing away, looking all the prettier for her dishevelment. “Dress that girl up, and she’d be a raving, tearing beauty,” added Tom to Maud, in a lower tone, as he took her into the parlor under his arm.
Polly’s experiment is a success. She flirts with Tom and family friend Arthur Sydney, allows herself to be fanned, makes presents to gentlemen of flowers from her bouquet, and generally blossoms under the unusual attention. But when the curtain falls, Polly overhears Fan and Tom talking about what Trix, Tom’s fiancée, will say when she hears about the high jinks.
“What do you mean?”
“Why, the way you’ve been going on tonight.”
“Don’t know, and don’t care; it’s only Polly.”
It’s hard to hear yourself described as only anything. Polly’s “heart was sore and angry, for that phrase, “It’s only Polly,” hurt her sadly.” Louisa May Alcott’s novels have a moralistic undercurrent and Polly pays a penalty for yielding to “various small temptation that beset pretty young girls.” Alcott shows that overheard truths can sting and their poison lead to misunderstandings which makes it difficult to find your heart’s desire.
The Promise of Happiness by Betty Neels, 1983. Perhaps an alternate title could be The Baron (rich, Dutch, doctor) and Becky (starved, homeless, English nurse). Early one morning the baron rescues a sodden Becky and her equally sopping dog and cat and whisks them into his Rolls, no less. Although he very kindly finds her a job nursing his mother while the older woman recovers from a broken leg, he has no romantic interest in her, as is evidenced by the words of the baron’s sister, ‘You said she was plain,’ she observed to her brother. ‘A half-starved mouse.’ Adding insult to injury, Becky also hears the baron telling his mother that “thin mice are not his cup of tea.” Even at her thinnest and most-mice-like, Becky always has spirit and spine. Given pleasant employment and delicious meals, Becky fills out quite nicely, leading the baron to tell her she’s “no longer a thin mouse.” It may seem that the rich Dutch doctor/baron is overly fixated on Becky’s physical appearance, but he compares her to a restful, hidden pool in a forest, saying “Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness,” (Stendhal). When he tells her “Good night, my pretty little mouse,” you realize that even though he might not know it yet, our rich Dutch doctor has found his happiness in Becky.
Sweet Dreams by Kristen Ashley, 2011. If you’ve read this book, I defy you to forget this overheard doozie. Lauren Grahame has left suburbia and her career and her cheating husband behind. She decides to try waitressing at a biker bar in the Colorado foothills, but when owner Krystal introduces her to handsome Tatum “Tate” Jackson, it doesn’t go well. Lauren overhears Krystal and Tate arguing about her when she walks down the hall.
“Jesus, Krys, maybe you wanna talk to me before you hire some sorry-ass, old, fat, suburban bitch to drag around our goddamned bar?”
I stopped and had to put a hand to the wall to hold myself up. Sorry-ass, old, fat, suburban bitch.
That beautiful man’s words ricocheted around my head causing damage that was so excruciating I knew the way it was inflicted it would never, never heal.
It’s hard to imagine that there’s any future possible between waitress Lauren and part-time owner Tate—a future where they might talk to each other civilly let alone enjoy each other’s company. But in the capable hands of Kristen Ashley, the temperature starts to warm up—eventually. Perhaps not right away. Like when they discuss what Lauren overheard. Not surprisingly, Tate says he was in a shit mood when he said what he did and tells Lauren to shake it off. I’ll spare you the back-and-forth but Lauren is a mess because of what she overheard. She tells Tate that she hasn’t been able to sleep, and she even tells him a little about her ex-husband.
When I was done he asked, “So you forgive him for bein’ a cheatin’ asshole and a liar and a dickhead who’s so fuckin’ dumb he throws away a good thing but you can’t forgive me for sayin’ somethin’ stupid?”
Tate tells Lauren that she won’t be able to avoid him and she rolls her eyes at him and says, “Great, more reasons to lose sleep.” But then Tate makes a statement that puts broken sleep and hurt feelings right out of her mind, “You want sweet dreams, lose the attitude and you might find I’ll give you reason to have them.”
Glitterland by Alexis Hall, 2013. This is a marvelous book filled with marvelous scenes, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll share just one. It takes us back full circle to Pride and Prejudice. We’re in Cambridge, in another room where a party is going on, with people talking, mingling, observing, and cruelly cutting the legs out from one another. Ash Winters, a clinically depressed, snobbish, pulp crime fiction writer, takes his glittery boyfriend, aspiring model and Essex boy Darian Taylor, to a posh snooty Oxbridge party. His friends quiz him about Darian in the spiteful way of old friends and frenemies.
“And the orange chap in the feathers is your boyfriend now?”
Again, that stomach-churning surge of interest from the others. I could see what they saw: the madman and his fool. And now they would have us caper. Their scrutiny had been unpleasant enough when it touched upon my past, but now their eyes were burrowing into my present. A better man would have owned his truth. But, at the moment, the vulnerability of mere madness seemed nothing to the vulnerability of showing that I cared.
I managed to meet the stares and gave what I hoped was an insouciant smile. “I wouldn’t go that far. He’s more of a-a fuckee, really.”
“A fuckee? Is that like a fuck buddy?”
“Yes, like a fuck buddy, but without the tiresome buddy requirement.”
This goes on, getting cruder and crueler, while Ash “waited for the laugh that never came.” Because, of course, Darian hears it all. “His eyes had the shiny look of someone on the brink of tears.” Darian being Darian, owns his hurt, his pain, his devastation, saying in his Essex accent,
“Mate, that’s … that’s bang aht of order.” His voice broke on the final word. “I fought you liked me.” And then he turned and walked away.
Dear Reader, there will be groveling and penance to come, but Ash’s immediate thoughts are so true to life. He doesn’t run after Darian. He feels sorry “but it was the regret of the thief who gets caught, not the regret of the truly penitent.”
For each couple, the stages of overhearing the worst have to be lived through and endured. The hurt partner has to acknowledge his or her feelings while eventually allowing forgiveness to wipe away anger and sadness. Are there other stories where this drama takes place? Do share.
Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. When I rediscovered the world of romance, my spirit guide was All About Romance's Desert Island Keepers — I started with the “A” authors and never looked back.